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Done Deal — Almost

Truckee Donner Land Trust in Escrow to Buy Royal Gorge

The Truckee Donner Land Trust has agreed to buy a huge portion of Donner Summit and open it up for activities that could include not only skiing, but also mountain biking, backpacking, and perhaps even horseback riding through pristine alpine meadows long closed to the public.

The land includes Royal Gorge Ski Area, a historic Nordic center with more than 100 miles of groomed cross-country trails that will be maintained and managed by Sugar Bowl Ski Resort.

The $13.5 million dollar deal includes 3,000 scenic acres atop Donner Summit, 355 acres of Negro Canyon (between Tahoe Donner and Donner Lake), and the creation of a $2.25 million fund for the long-term management and stewardship of the land.

“There’s probably more than 100 ‘No Trespassing’ signs up there that I’m very excited to remove,” said Perry Norris, executive director of the land trust. Those signs could end up being a few more trophies on the wall of Norris’ small Truckee office, which is decorated with similar signs from previous public acquisitions.

Beyond the Nordic center’s winter operations, Norris says, “We are going to open up an unbelievable treasure for summer visitors that has been closed to the public for years.”

For locals, the landmark deal marks a victory in the decade-long struggle to stop the development of Donner Summit. Plans to build some 1,000 homes around these pristine alpine meadows six years ago sparked a populist backlash. “Save Donner Summit” became a common slogan on bumper stickers around Tahoe, soon to be followed by the more radical proposal, “Let’s Buy It!”

Last year, when developers defaulted on their $16.7 million note, the land trust stepped up its efforts to acquire the property. Thanks to their hard-fought efforts, what once seemed like a pipe dream is now close to a reality.

If all goes according to plan, Norris might well be hanging that “No Trespassing” sign in his office in time for Christmas. But to pull it off, the land trust will need to raise $11 million by Dec. 20.

“That’s 5 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, to close escrow,” says Norris. A portion of the purchase price will come from state and federal funds, but “unlike other acquisitions, the majority of these funds will come from people like me or you.”

To date, the land trust has “solid commitments” for $2.5 million from about 100 donors, Norris said. The lion’s share — $1 million — will come from the Northern Sierra Partnership, a collaboration of five conservation groups that includes the land trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, Feather River Land Trust, and the Sierra Business Council.

The remainder has come from donations as small as $25, said Norris.

For skiers, the joint venture would mean a combined cross-country/downhill pass and an improved trail connection between the two resorts, said Sugar Bowl Marketing Director John Monson.

Sugar Bowl intends to offer an affordable stand-alone Royal Gorge pass for cross-country enthusiasts and “an even deeper discount” for skiers interested in combined access. The joint venture creates an “economy of scale that will allow Sugar Bowl to help return Royal Gorge to the world class resort it once was,” Monson said.

The two resorts are roughly connected by a cat track of just under two miles — the so-called “interconnect.” But grooming has been sporadic in recent years, and the trail was not exactly “beginner friendly,” Monson said. Under the new deal, Sugar Bowl would plan to improve access and grooming.

Add 3,000 acres of open space with more than 100 miles of groomed Nordic trails to Sugar Bowl’s more than 1,500 acres of terrain, and you’ve got a tourist draw that has the potential to transform Donner Summit.

“I think Sugar Bowl understands the importance of Royal Gorge for the industry,” said Paco Lindsay, owner of Paco’s Bike & Ski in Truckee. “Back in the old days, Royal Gorge was almost the first place to open and the last place to close. So many people can come up here for just the day, and it’s an iconic place to cross-country ski.”

If the land trust can meet their fundraising goal by Dec. 20, Norris says he’d like to organize community forums to discuss questions such as whether the public would like to see overnight camping allowed, where trails should be planned, equestrian access, and infrastructure questions such as the concept for bird-watching platforms on Van Norden Meadows.

Having had the chance to ride a mountain bike through some of this pristine terrain (“with permission,” he notes), Paco said he was impressed with potential for trail access and the sheer natural beauty of the place.

Who wouldn’t kick in $25 for that sort of year-round access?

The land trust is betting that a few thousand donors will contribute that much or more. Grassroots fundraising, Norris predicts, will be the impetus for larger donors to come forward.

“With Royal Gorge, we are embarking on a campaign to raise more than $10 million in the next six months,” the land trust’s board president, Bill Thauvette, wrote in a recent newsletter, noting this has never been attempted before. “The Truckee Donner Land Trust has never failed to close a deal for lack of funding. With such a generous and diverse group of partners, we are confident we never will.”

To donate, visit tdlandtrust.org, click on “Donate Now” and earmark your donation for Donner Summit.

~ Comment on this story below.

Reader comments so far...

Never under estimate what a small group of people can accomplish. Preserving these lands is a beautiful thing. Truckee needs to put the brakes on all its development. Stop it now. All you get from any growth such as more roundabouts, highrises, etc. is more traffic idling sending pollution out into the air and mucking up the beautiful Sierra sky. More crime. More poverty. More government infastrusture that benefits no one. And certainly not good for preserving open space.

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July 11, 2014